Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Winchester '73 is what film critics call a key western, for it represents a major turn in the genre's development. High Noon got all the credit for initiating the 'adult psychological Western' of the 1950s but this ambitious Universal film is the real trend-setter, for several reasons.
James Stewart re-wrote Hollywood law when he signed up as a major profit participant for this show, starting a trend that broke studio autonomy in favor of top talent agents. Produced as an afterthought to Harvey, '73 was a much bigger boxoffice smash, cementing Stewart's post-war star recovery, and making a hot property out of director Anthony Mann.
In Dodge City, Wyatt Earp (Will Geer) holds a centennial shooting match. Winner Lin McAdam (James Stewart) wins the prize of a perfect Winchester repeating rifle, only to have it stolen by the villianous Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Dutch loses it in a card game with a crooked gambler (John McIntire), who in turn loses both it and his scalp to Indian chief Young Bull (Rock Hudson). Then the rifle passes over to the cowardly Steve Miller (Charles Drake), whose new woman Lola Manners (Shelley Winters) is drawn to Lin. Miller refuses to give up the gun to outlaw Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea), but Waco takes it anyway, only to have it yanked back from him by Dutch Henry, with whom Waco attempts to rob a bank. This brings Lin back into the picture, for an ultimate showdown with the treacherous Dutch Henry.
Film historian Jim Kitses came from the UK in 1973 to teach the single most valuable class I took at UCLA. He concentrated on three underappreciated 'Western' directors, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah and Anthony Mann, adjusting the then-current auteurist critical model into a genre study. Whereas Peckinpah capped the three with his summing-up of the entire Western genre, the other two, especially Mann, took the mostly unformed ideas in the Western and made them into something worthy of critical study. He's the most interesting director of Western films this side of John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Mann made five Westerns in five years with James Stewart. They share similar casts and Mann's distinctive directorial style - the director was already a hot ticket based on his low budget Noir thrillers for Eagle Lion and MGM. A demanding director with ambitions to greatness, Mann eventually graduated to epic films in the early 60s. For his Stewart films he molded somewhat generic scripts (most notably by Borden Chase) into westerns with a strong
Winchester '73 is a multiple revenge tale with a circular La Ronde structure. We follow the exploits of a prize rifle as it precipitates violence in a cross-section of frontier characters. The story has a prime example of the 'binary' genre character. (slight spoiler) James Stewart and Stephen McNally are brothers and moral opposites, one bad, one good. It's a Cain and Abel opposition because McNally killed their father. As this is played out in Western terms, dad's only contribution was to teach them to shoot, which is why they score identically on a rifle range. It's an NRA dream family. This binary character idea worked better than it had in gangster stories where one brother would be a crook and another a priest or a cop, etc. In one form or another it's at the center of all of Peckinpah's Western heroes: Steve Judd/Gil Westrum, Amos Charles Dundee/Benjamin Tyreen, Pike Bishop/Deke Thornton, William Bonney/Pat Garrett.
The subsidiary characters are spin-offs that compliment or comment on the conflict between the binary heroes. Dan Duryea is smarter than McNally, but wisely knows he's not as tough; Charles Drake is a pantywaist suitable only for humiliation (made to wear a woman's apron, of course). Will Geer, Millard Mitchell and even J.C. Flippen are various kinds of father figures (thank you, Phil Hardy). Out on the plains there's the Army, well-intentioned but inexperienced Easterners that need guidance from a frontiersman like Stewart. The completely savage Indians like Rock Hudson's idealized brave know White men only thorugh the perfidy of the weasely John McIntire.
Stewart's character claims to be out for revenge against his brother, but he ends up being All Things to the 'good' characters in the story. He's a buddy to Millard Mitchell and tougher than Waco Johnnie Dean -the scene where he smashes Duryea's head on the bar shows Stewart to be no slouch when it comes to sadism. 1 Stewart lends his knowledge of the Indians to grizzled Army sergeant Flippen. The saloon girl that wants children but is disgusted by her cowardly husband is of course immediately attracted to Stewart. And Stewart's moral superiority to his murderous brother is what turns the end confrontation in his favor.
Winchester '73 outraged the feminists at UCLA, who bridled at its wholesale championing of conservative values. They were right of course, but it's important to point out that the wishy-washy liberalism of High Noon was a drop in the bucket compared to the overwhelming preponderance of pictures exalting the status quo. Winchester '73 is indeed a wrapup of conservative conventions right from the first scene where bad girl Shelley Winters is being run out of town, Stagecoach-style. The Indians don't come any more stupid or savage than here. We see one cigar-store clown in town, and Rock Hudson's braves wait to attack at dawn, a pervasive falsehood. They then ride in suicidal charges and are shot down like targets in a penny arcade.
Unlike some of his later scripts, Borden Chase keeps the Aesop's Fables moralizing to a minimum. But the
sense of absolute righteousness was disturbing to European critics looking to use Westerns to distill the American character. Stewart is a relentless searcher with a grudge but he prevails over his brother mainly because he's convinced he has an unequivocal moral right to kill him. This is what Westerns are all about - a cultural myth that many Americans take as a kind of substitute religion.
The Anthony Mann - Borden Chase style is unmistakable. Complacency and white hats are out, there's no time to relax,
and the character with the neurotic jitter is likely to be the hero. Stewart and and McNally slap empty leather at first sight (a great moment), which points up the fact that although Good and Evil are absolutes in Mann's world, violence is a universal given. This also being the most moralistic of genres, Mann judges his characters strictly by their actions. All the males have different positions on the masculine superiority scale - Earp over McAdam, Dutch Henry over Waco, Waco over Steve. There's a pecking order to everything. By the time we get down to the third-string baddies, they're fools that will rush out into a hail of posse bullets, just on Waco's snide say-so.
Finally, there's Mann's use of violent landscapes. The fighters go out of their way to conclude their rifle duel in the craggy rocks, a favorite Mann location exploited most strongly in The Naked Spur. The outcroppings are treacherous and unforgiving, and vertical as opposed to the horizontal of the desert and plains. Mann goes in for sadistic detail, such as Dutch Henry's use of ricochet-ing bullets to trap McAdam between two rocks, like a victim in a torture device. 3
The feminists also nailed the Shelley Winters character for encapsuling every frontier woman cliché,
from her instant attraction to kids to the 'saving the last bullet for yourself' bit. But they didn't pick up on the best dirty joke in a 1950 film, when Dan Duryea finds himself trapped in a farmhouse. He's praising his two underlings' sick sense of humor when he says, 'What a pair!', but Mann then has him turn around and cast his eyes on Shelley for the first time, and give a big doubletake-leer in reaction to seeing her figure. The framing is perfect, and I can't believe that most males in the audience didn't get the joke. All that's lacking is an acknowledging return look from Winters.
Winchester '73 is great for star watching. Besides a rather embarrassing screen opportunity for Rock Hudson, paying his dues in feathers and body paint, there's pretty boy Tony Curtis with only a couple of lines to say. This film and A Double Life were also the breakthrough roles for Shelley Winters. Soon-to-be-blacklisted Will Geer is a great Wyatt Earp and later Mann regulars Steve Brodie, John McIntire, Chuck Roberson and Jay C. Flippen contribute excellent turns. I always smile at the pairing of Abner Biberman's Mexican outlaw with the inimitable John Doucette - always an unsung Western baddie with that scowl and deep voice, like an irate woodchuck. 2
Universal's DVD of Winchester '73 is an adequate encoding of an okay source. The film doesn't look as though it's been remastered since the good laserdisc version from 14 years ago, and the bit rate is sometimes on the light side, adding grain and not helping with the overall sharpness. This only becomes apparent on a large monitor, but what are these high-resolution discs supposed to be for, anyway?
James Stewart's 1989 commentary is an okay free-form discussion without much detail. Stewart starts on topic but is soon off on tangents about Alfred Hitchcock and just about anything else he can think of. The commentary form allows us to hear what he's like beyond his usual short & prepared speeches, and he comes off as a pleasant fellow. Winchester '73 started Stewart off as a significant shareholder of MCA, and he does a good job of disguising the fact that his acting career from here on was mostly a set of savvy business decisions, with infrequent departures for Art with Hitchcock, etc.
There's also a trailer, and English, French and Spanish subs. Savant will be reviewing Destry Rides
Again, Bend of the River and The Far Country in (hopefully) quick succession. The
menus for all the current batch of Universal Westerns are accompanied by generic canned music cues.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Winchester '73, rates:
Supplements: James Stewart interview commentary
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2003
1. The rough violence in Mann's earlier noirs provoked charges of sadism. In the excellent Raw Deal, a fight between two men has a similiar moment where one is going to force the other's face into the antler points of a stuffed deer head, eyes first.
2. My favorite Doucette scene is when he's cast totally against type (on purpose) as a Phillistine architect brought on to dumb-down Gary Cooper's designs in The Fountainhead. When Cooper explains that his artistic vision shouldn't be subjected to the second-guessing of lesser talents, Doucette objects in his best frontier-moron voice: "Why not? We wanna express our creativity too!" Cast in almost 150 movies, Doucette is easily remembered as the General that George C. Scott bullies on Sicily in Patton.
3. Critics make a big deal of the open flatland vs. craggy rocks in John Ford's The Searchers. The clear sightlines of the flatland make for fair contests and simple moral decision-making. Up in the rocks is where the troubled & wounded hide and also where the atrocities take place, such as the rape-murder of Lucy. When Ethan Edwards rides down his niece Debbie, the flat plains suddenly transform into a steep hill. Ethan decides to spare Debbie in front of a deep cave, representing the ultimate in psychotic 'scenery', or perhaps his secret desire to ravage Debbie himself. Are these empty critics' games, or literary analysis?
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson